Six Reasons Churches Are Taking Too Long to Find a New Pastor

April 30, 2018
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I wish I had objective data on the length of time between pastors. I can say anecdotally the time is much longer than it used to be. A whole lot longer.

To be clear, I know we cannot presume on the call of God. I get that. But, all things considered, more and more churches are struggling because they are going longer periods of time without a pastor. Attendance often declines. Budget giving often declines. Morale often declines.

So why are search committees and appointment processes (I will refer to all search entities as search committees for simplicity) taking so much longer? I see six clear reasons.

  1. There are no longer ready-made networks to provide a steady supply of pastors for churches. Denominations and other networks could provide a list of names in the past, many of whom could fit most churches in that network. Today, churches are different more than uniform. Communities are more diverse. The “denominationally-groomed-and-ready” pastor just does not exist today.
  2. Search committees are often poorly equipped to find pastors. They typically do not know the right places to go and the right people to ask. They don’t have time to devote to seeking applicants and culling through resumes. Most don’t know the profile of a best qualified applicant.
  3. Search committees often still use old paradigms. Advertise in denominational or network publications. Wait for a flood of resumes to arrive with mostly unqualified candidates. Go to a candidate’s church to hear a sermon. Go through resumes one by one in an excruciatingly slow and painful process. Wait. Wait. Wait.
  4. Many search committees don’t use a search firm. I’ve heard all the reasons not to do so. Some think it costs too much. But most churches save a lot of money and time using a search firm. For example, during prolonged interim periods church giving usually declines—which can lead to financial struggles. Other churches think the search firm chooses the pastors for them. No, the search firm finds qualified candidates for the church to choose (Full disclosure: Vanderbloemen Search Group (Vanderbloemen.com) is a sponsor of Rainer on Leadership podcast. They are incredible!)
  5. Search committees often represent a cross section of the church rather than the most qualified members. I understand the sentiment to have every group in the church represented. Unfortunately, such representation is not often commensurate with qualification. And an unqualified search committee is most often a slow search committee.
  6. Some search committees and churches don’t think it is spiritual to find a new pastor too quickly. In most cases, a church should be able to get a new pastor in six months or less. God is really able to work that punctually. There is nothing inherently spiritual about taking a year or two years or more finding a new pastor. In fact, in many cases it is really bad stewardship to take that long.

Many churches are simply taking too long to find a new pastor.

As a consequence, many congregations are struggling without a leader to guide them.

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92 Comments

  • David Bell says on

    Your point #2 resounds with my experience as an interim pastor at a recent church. The search committee was ill-prepared and the individuals had not been properly vetted and qualified to serve on a pastor search committee. Rather than represent the church as a whole, too many people brought their own expectations and “pet” agendas to the table as well as doctrinal and theological diversification which further impeded the search for a qualified candidate. There was no unity or cohesiveness within the group. Furthermore this group was in a panic to undo their past mistakes and problems as it relates to searching for a pastor and church administration by trying to find the “perfect” candidate based on their presuppositions and not on Gods’ will.
    Frustrating to say the least.

  • I was wondering if you have suggestions for the other side of this. Pastors searching for a church. It is very hard to find cjurches that are open or know how to begin. Even the lists on association and convention websites are rarely updated. My husband found a few on Indeed and some in the state baptist headlines but it is very hard to know where to look. Thanks, Pastors wife

  • Another reason is that Churches do not know their own mission and identity. The search team, therefore, must have a protracted conversation as the beginning to know who/what they want to look for and to honestly represent the church to prospective pastors.

  • I’d add one more to the list: Search Committees Have Unrealistic Qualifications. Many churches want a pastor with X number of years of experience, a certain level of education, etc.
    However, when I was looking for ministry positions while still in Seminary and for a few years afterwards (I graduated in 2010), I came across churches looking for a pastor with 10+ years of head/lead pastoral experience, and these were small country churches…
    I had 2 phone interviews with pastors whose churches were looking for a youth minister and I never got past the phone interview b/c I was unmarried and I was not engaged and I was not in a serious dating relationship and this was a requirement for both churches…
    All churches should have similar qualifications regarding a candidates theology, call to ministry, etc, but in the areas of experience, marital status, etc, those should be different based on the size of a church.
    A church like Southeast Christian (in Louisville, KY) should have stricter qualifications in terms of years of experience, education level, etc, but a small country church shouldn’t expect to get a pastor with 10+ years of experience unless he’s near retirement age and just looking for a smaller church where there would (potentially) be less work for him than in a bigger church.

    • Good points, Scott.

    • Years ago I saw a list of qualifications for the perfect pastor. They included things like, “He’s 28 years old and has been a pastor for 30 years”. Or, “He makes 20 visits every day, but is always in the office when you need him.” You get the idea. Alas, these unrealistic expectations have been around for a very long time.

  • Mike Thompson says on

    Church less than a mile from where I live. 2 yrs ago thriving alive 500+. Worship leader left then Sr. Pastor left now have a full time interim pastor no worship pastor. good to have 150.

  • Philip Brown says on

    Two issues. Struggling churches search teams are looking for the silver bullet pastors rather than the pastor/leader/shepherd God has prepared and equipped for them.
    Pastors also need to strongly consider putting into place a succession plan. Many pastors probably don’t like the idea of a succession plan, but this likely has to do with men struggling with confidence issues or only thinkna succession plan is for large church pastors. I believe that small and medium size churches would benefit more from a succession plan than large churches.

    • Excellent points, Philip.

      • Bob Myers says on

        Add to your two excellent points the reality that there are only so many 35-45 year-old pastoral candidates out there. Churches should realize that their age bias (on both ends of the spectrum) may be keeping them from engaging with excellent candidates and the pastor that God may have for them.

      • You are exactly right, Bob.

      • Not to mention the other litmus tests…

    • R. D. Carrington, Sr. says on

      To the observation regarding “succession plan” I say “AMEN!’ 1. Maybe there is a hint in the Biblical record of Joshua serving Moses then succeeding him, and Elisha serving Elijah then succeeding him. 2. It would be just wrong and sad for any husband to lead a wife and children for years then not make any provisions for their lives after the eventuality of his death. And, I see poor stewardship of the trust and responsibilities given by God to pastors to not lead churches to put in place a plan which would provide guidance for the life of a church absent the pastor. And yet, in the years I served as moderator of a regional association I was called to help churches several times in this very situation, including several churches after long-term pastorates.

  • So what are the solutions? It seems as though you point out the obvious, but offer no solutions.

    • Linda –

      I do indeed suggest solutions such as make certain your search committee includes members highly competent for the task, and strongly consider the services of a search firm.

  • My main issue is that the search firms only look at experience, not the call of God. In the Bible, not one of the disciples would have the resume worthy enough to lead the church.

    • I respectfully disagree, Chris. The good search firms often seek more insights on the call of God for a candidate than many search committees.

      • I agree with Thom. I have a portfolio at two of the most reputable search firms. They go deep! I found it to be a good experience in self evaluation.

      • Dr. Rainer,
        You are a great help on many levels – but I have a great number of issues with the ‘Search Firm’ approach. I am with you in describing how our system is ‘fractured’ if not ‘broken’, but I am not convinced in my spirit that a ‘firm for profit’ is the ideal way for a church to find “God’s man.”

      • Not too many years ago, I was searching for my next ministry staff position and was a candidate with all the major search firms that I could find. One firm was drastically different in the way that they handled candidates and I eventually joined their staff as a Search Consultant. Because I am a minister at heart, it was a perfect fit and I’ve been with The Shepherd’s Staff ever since.

        I do sometimes encounter individuals that consider using a search firm to be “not how God does it” but the truth is that we provide a service that takes many hours and months to do effectively. That work would otherwise be delegated to volunteers with neither the time, skills, tools or experience to properly process the thousands of candidates that we connect with for every position that we work on. Or, that work has to be done by church staff whose time could/should be spent on the ministry efforts that they are better skilled and called to do.

        The fact that we are paid to perform this service is really no different – and certainly no less ‘Biblical’ – than paying people to conduct services that the church members are not able or perhaps skilled to do.

        Because I talk to many candidates and churches in the course of any given week, it isn’t uncommon to hear stories about shortcuts, manipulation, poor treatment, and ‘headhunter’ mentalities. Sadly, I hear this way too often and I can certainly understand how these unfortunate practices can create negative opinions about the use of a search firm. Obviously, not all search firms are alike – which is what drew me to The Shepherd’s Staff in the first place.

        As a minister, I feel very blessed to help our church clients discover some of the nation’s very best ministers to consider for the staff positions for which they are searching. I enjoy the relationships that are developed, the process of thinking through the most strategic needs for a staff team, and the faith journey that we take together as we seek God’s guidance and wisdom regarding candidates. I also enjoy ministering to the candidates as they seek God’s guidance regarding their next steps in ministry.

        Most of all, I enjoy the resulting reports of longer, more fruitful, and more strategic ministry experiences that are much more common when there is a proven process in place to help churches make better hiring decisions.

  • As a Director of Missions who has been observing churches without pastors for over 20 years, I would make the following observation. In some smaller churches it is a good thing that a Search Committee takes due diligence in finding a pastor instead of them taking the first person who presents themselves as a candidate!

  • The departure of a senior pastor often results from a conflict within the church that the pastor could not resolve. Without outside counsel, it is likely that the struggle that brought about the pastor’s departure will remain unsettled, resulting in a lengthy and often tumultuous interim period.

  • That could also pertain to staff positions as well. We have been searching for a worship leader for months now, and still haven’t gotten it nailed down. Senior pastor is about to pull what little hair he has left out! Fixing to start a knew church plant in a growing community a few miles from our church, and this is the last thing he needs.

  • Robert White says on

    And so those churces without pastors would be well advised to seek out a trained and certified transitional/interim pastor.

    • There you go . . .

      • Dan Birchfield says on

        I agree with Robert’s thoughtson certified transitional interim pastor. Sadly, I missed the discussion here on interim pastor nightmares. Finding the right interim pastor is as vital as finding the right pastor. I have knowledge of a church that called an interim pastor who came perilously close to splitting the church with his heavy handed tactics. The church wisely sought the help of advisers from their state convention who’s first recommendation was to terminate the interim and start the process from scratch. The church eventually called a pastor, but it’s taken a number of years to recover from the damage done by the interim.

      • This is so true

      • True. A bad interim is often worse than a prolonged search.

      • Annette says on

        This is so true. Our church had a interim pastir and he split the church and started a new ministry with the ones who left. He called for a vote to elect himself as pastor which was out of order. People objected but he declared himself as pastor since he did get the majority of votes of people who were there. I am still distraught and sad over this. We are still trying to go on but it hurts.

      • Harold Hambley says on

        I agree with you Robert. There are good, qualified Interim pastors out there. Maybe Vanderbloom could recommend some.

    • Being a trained transitional interim, I can state that many churches see the interim period as an evil, rather than as an opportunity. Churches also tend to only want an interim to be Peter with his finger in the dike, holding back the water until the “real pastor” comes along.

      Both of these viewpoints/attitudes are harmful to the church itself.

    • Thomas Fultz says on

      An interesting paradox – concern over excessively long search efforts and recognition some congregations may need a skilled transitional pastor for a intentional and focused interim between Installed Pastors. Our congregation’s recent experience of seven months of searching for a new pastor revolved around unity in the governing board and search team founded upon prayer and reflection on the qualities God had prepared for our situation. We began at a presbytery meeting by engaging potential candidates and those who might know of other candidates, so networks were available. to identify candidates in a way of taking into account the diversity of our days. Our search team was humble and dependent upon God which equipped then to find a pastor. They were diligent to look in the right places and the right people to ask. They understood it was their calling to take time to seek applicants and cull through resumes using a profile of a qualified applicant that fit the skills and experience and attitude we needed as we go forward in God’s call to us. Since our congregation’s information package was clear to the expectations of qualifications there was no flood of resumes to arrive with mostly unqualified candidates. The search team received a reasonable number of inquiries. Search of websites and taped sermons aided their reviews reducing the time to sort through the candidates. The short periods of waiting were spent in prayer and refinement of the profile of a best qualified candidate.
      I do wonder what elements makes a Professional Search assisting firm incredible.

      Our search team did represent a cross section of the church but also were the most qualified members due to their heart for Jesus. Now I agree that some search teams don’t think it is spiritual to find a new pastor too quickly. Our team had a sense that the Holy Spirit had begun the preparation of our next pastor much in advance of the position becoming open and therefore expected a reasonable transition period of five to eight months..

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